Mindful Meditation: Save me, Ringo!

July 15, 2021

Let’s be honest, the pandemic has brought us some good things. For example, there are people who will deliver vanilla lattes to your home and text you when they are on your doorstep. The 2020-2021 lockdown was also a great time to work on ourselves and our relationships. Besides the long conversations with my wife about what I might need to tweak in my own psychodynamic, I read a lot that put me on a path of internal work. Books like Get Out You Mind and Into Your Life, and You Might Be a Narcissist If…, and (currently) Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives. As an educator, I want to de-stigmatize the effort to do self work. Let’s be honest, we all could use a little help to be better people

But what really changed the game was meditation.

As a Beatle maniac, I was always enamored with how the practice of transcendental meditation changed the trajectory of the Fab Four’s career. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in Bangor, Wales in August, 1967 attending a seminar in TM held by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when their manager, Brian Epstein, suddenly died. Seeing how they handled his death with calmness was a bit shocking to Western sensibilities about grief. Those seminars and their extended trip to India the following spring to study under the Maharishi set them on lifelong paths of meditation (and vegetarianism). Ringo Starr just turned 81 and still meditates every single day. So does Paul McCartney.

My first personal experience with meditation was when I was about 12 and taking karate classes. As a child I suffered from intense insomnia, my mind racing with fantasies about dinosaurs and Spiderman. The meditation practice at the end of each karate class promised “astral projection,” but really taught me how to calm my mind and I’ve used it as a tool to get to sleep ever since. (I often focus on images under the sea, so when I started scuba diving in 2016, it was like I manifested my dream world through deep thought.)

This latest chapter was born from intense frustration. I could read all the “self-help” books in the world but my impulses were still getting the better of me. My need to be confrontational likely stems from my early family dynamic. I like to fight. Me vs. You. I could be a road rager, given the right traffic jam. Often in my marriage, while I “know” Andi and I are on the same team, sometimes I act like we are opposing forces. This is especially true in emotional moments. Even if it’s something stupid, like me wondering, “Why do I always have to be the one to wash the dishes?” My emotional self takes over my intellectual self and I say something stupid. There have been a thousand apologies after I get my head back on straight. I do plenty of trainings on implicit bias, but the greater challenge is teaching people to not let those “unthought thoughts” turn into bad behavior.

So, if some of this is hardwired into the subconscious, how can you ever get in front of it?

Starting a daily meditation practice has provided the answer. Just ten minutes each morning. I sit in the backyard, under an apple tree, and pop open a guided meditation video on YouTube. (The ones by Calm are amazing.) The focus is first on the breath, and seeing any incoming thoughts as clouds floating by, there and gone. The cackling crows and planes landing at PDX are just part of the ambient symphony of my environment. The rest of the time is focusing on not being my thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are not real. They don’t have to control me.

Today’s meditation focused on alleviating worry. Occasionally, I’ll get in a sour mood because of something stupid I did in the past, or something I imagine going on in the present or future, and it’s down a little black hole. The meditation focused on how there are three parts of this process. First is the image of the situation, like remembering some micro aggression I committed in the past or some upcoming event I’m not looking forward to. The second part is the emotion that thought brings up and the third is how that emotion impacts the body. The physical response could be the muscles tensing up or (worse) being more impulsive. Mindfulness says if you can witness this process, you can interrupt it before it gets to Step 3.

It was perfect timing to focus on this as just a few days earlier I totally did this spiral. It was Andi’s turn to prepare dinner but she stopped after work to have drinks and do some career planning with a mentor. Based on something that happened to me nearly 25 years ago, my head went somewhere stupid, I got frustrated and angry, and my fingers sent some pretty snarky texts. My subconscious kicked my ass. Again. If I had been more mindful, I would have identified what that emotion was about and it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the Send button. Meditation helped me to see that flow-chart so I don’t repeat the mistake.

The great thing about meditation is that you are literally retraining my brain to be more thoughtful. Andi has commented on the dramatic difference in my demeanor. I no longer start stupid fights (that I later have to apologize for) and center her needs as a part of my normal behavior pattern. I see challenging thoughts like leaves floating down a stream and then I hear Bono sing, “Let it go!” It feels like a rebirth. It feels like embracing thankfulness instead of anger.

Meditation has come into the daily practice of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and LeBron James, who meditates on the bench in the middle of games. Our active culture has a hard time “doing nothing” for 10 minutes. Before the pandemic, my yoga class would end with 5 minutes of meditation, cutely referred to as corpse pose (Shavasana). There are always a handful of people who bail to spend that 5 minutes on the Stairmaster. They’re really missing out. Filmmaker David Lynch has a foundation that brings meditation into schools and seen mediating students become less violent and more productive. Meditation is being used to treat trauma and improve the quality of inmate lives in prisons.

I had hit a wall in my self work, battling with my subconscious programming. Then I thought, well, if Ringo Starr can mediate 10 minutes a day and be so “peace and love” all the time (and be married to “Bond Girl” Barbara Bach for 40 years), maybe I should give it a try. Starting each day with 10 minutes, quieting my mind and reminding myself that I am not my emotions has transformed the quality of my life in a palpable way. I can only encourage you to start your own practice under your own apple tree. And thank you, Ringo.

My Old Face

January 18, 2020

Unknown

The life expectancy in the United States in 1920 was 58.8 years, so if you met someone who was sixty, they were “elderly” and living on borrowed time. In 2020, the American life expectancy is 78.9 and there are approximately 80,000 Americans who are over a hundred years old. I’m 55, so a hundred years ago I would have been ancient and now I’m wondering if I even qualify as “middle-aged.” Wilfrid Brambell, the actor who played Paul McCartney’s comical grandfather in The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was 52 at the time. Beatle Paul is now 77 and heads back on tour this spring, headlining the Glastonbury Festival on June 27.

So who’s old now? “Old.”

And when someone tells you to “act your age,” what does that even mean? What does it mean to a 17-year-old or a 55-year-old? I remember during the previous impeachment, there was a general feeling that 52-year-old Bill Clinton was not acting his age with Monica Lewinsky.  (Harvey Weinstein, 67, redefined the relationship between age and douchebaggery.) And if he were not the leader of the free world, the infantile antics of Donald Trump, 73, might be endearing. “He’s an old man, but he’s so childlike!”

As I write this with my reading glasses on, I can tell you there are a few clear markers of aging besides the fact that the smoothness of my skin seems to be evaporating. The aches and pains creep in and the extra pounds tend to hang on a bit longer, no matter how hard I hit the gym. And it’s just harder to hit the gym since there’s something awesome on TV tonight. I always hated when my elders would complain endlessly about the chronic pains of life so I’ll keep my mouth shut, but if I drive more than five miles, my right knee hurts!

There’s also the constant reminder of the passage of time. As a teacher, aging is particularly profound. The majority of my college students were born in the twenty-first century. I’ll say something like, “Remember how the nation reacted to 9/11?” and they’ll say, “OK, boomer, I was 3 days old.” And I’ll say, “I’m not a boomer, depending on how you chart birth rates. I’m a Generation X elder.” (My five-year-old daughter has taken to saying, “OK, boomer X.”) Regardless, I am constantly reminding my students what the world was like before the internet. Last week I was explaining what a “travel agent” was. “A travel asian?” one asked.

The value of all the mistakes I’ve made is that I can offer Generation Z endless pearls of wisdom, like “avoid credit card debt at all costs,” and “figure out ASAP that women are people,” and “don’t mix wine and whiskey,” and “take a literature class or something.” Then I can sit back and put all my hopes that the world doesn’t blow up on them. It is nice knowing a few things about how reality works even if I have no idea how I’ll be paying for the chronic health issues that are surely around the corner.

VelvetQ

The bottom line is that I don’t feel old. I still want to be at the front of the stage when a hot young band is blowing the doors off of some basement club. I was in the front when I was 17 seeing The Ramones and I was right up front seeing Velvet Q scream through a set in Seattle a few weeks ago. (Check them out, Grams.) I try not to wonder if the kids are thinking, “What’s that old guy doing here?” Because that’s what I would have thought back in the day. But, to be frank, the reality is that I find more comfort in spinning an old Yes album, than knowing the next big underground thing. (I’ve taken to consuming critics year-end lists to find music I should’ve already known about. Big Thief!)

The Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, got old. Boomers like Donald Trump and Dolly Parton, both born in 1946, are 73. The good news is that generation changed what it means to “get old.” If 73 is no longer “old,” 55 definitely is not. Ringo Starr will be on tour this summer for his 80th birthday, and Trump probably already has his sights on his post-indictment wife. (Sorry, Melania. Be best!) They made “thirty-something” cool in the eighties and they’ll probably make “eighty-something” cool in the 2030s.

So, lines on my face aside, there’s still a lot of life ahead. That includes mistakes, child-like moments of wonder, new paths, and nights pressed against the stage, remaining hair shaking to the beat.

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Dad’s Top 20 Favorite New Spins of 2017

December 21, 2017

Speaking

This has been a weird year for music for me. The budget tightened as Cozy got bigger and the sabbatical cushion got smaller. Weekly trips to Music Millennium were replaced by lots of speaking engagements and news interviews about the rise of fascism in Trump’s America. I buried my ears in old John Coltrane albums as I read Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest by Eric Nisenson. I spent a lot more listening time in 1964 than 2017, perhaps as an escape from the endless bad news of America going into the ditch. Just turn on KMHD radio and forget about the train wrecks (both literal and not) for a moment.

In my book, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, I posit a theory about the music of the seventh year of each decade. There is one pop album and one underground album that truly defines the decade. 1967: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s and The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1977: Saturday Night Fever and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bullocks, 1987: U2’s The Joshua Tree and Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1997: The Spice Girl’s debut and Radiohead’s OK, Computer. The theory sort of falls apart with the death of the album in the 2000s. (You could make the case that 2007 fell to Kanye West and the White Stripes). But what will it be for 2017? It wasn’t exactly the Summer of Love 2.0. It may take years to figure out how we survived a year without a new Beyoncé album.

Paul Weller

We did make it to a few great shows this year. Paul Weller in Seattle was probably my favorite and Solange in Portland was pretty epic. Beck and Spoon on the Portland Waterfront were mass entertaining. Runaway Lita Ford rocked Dante’s and getting to sing with Drivin’ N’ Cryin in Marietta, Georgia was a hoot. (Kevn Kinney introduced me as “Randy Blazak from U2!”)  Herb Albert gave a master class in pop history at the Aladdin and Sting and Michael Kiwanuka brought some neo-soul to town. Bomba Estereo and Y La Bamba covered our Latin fixes. We had a great night with Shannon & the Clams and Portland garage kings The Shivas. However, I missed a ton of great gigs, choosing stay home and sing Frozen songs with Cozy.

war-on-drugs-deeper-understanding

I missed a lot of great music this year. I hear both the War on Drugs and Roger Waters have brilliant new albums out.. I know everyone has Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN at the top of their year-end polls. I loved his last one but I’m just tired of rap albums where every other word is “bitch.” It shows a lack of imagination, no matter how brilliant your commentary might be. The anti-Trump music is finally coming out. Jason Isbell’s “White Man’s World” is a chilling take on election day and I must have played “Fuck Donald Trump” by YG a hundred times on the binks jukebox. Maybe 2018 will be our 1968. You say you want a revolution? Well, you know. Is it streaming?

So this isn’t the best new albums of the year, just the ones I enjoyed the most, while Andrea painted and Cozy built increasingly impressive towers of blocks. I’ve already written about my complete submission to the joyous Harry Styles album, so it should be of no surprise that it tops my heart’s charts. We lost some greats, like Chuck Berry and Sharon Jones, and some old friends returned to remind us that, despite our foray into the Upside Down, great music will always sustain us.

HarryStyles-albumcover

  1. Harry Styles – Harry Styles
  2. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – Soul of a Woman
  3. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
  4. U2 – Songs of Experience
  5. SZA – Cntrl
  6. Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris
  7. Tim Darcy – Saturday Night
  8. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
  9. Dhani Harrison – In///Parallel
  10. Ringo Starr – Give More Love
  11. Paul Weller – A Kind Revolution
  12. Algiers – The Underside of Power
  13. Father John Misty – Pure Comedy
  14. Drivin N Cryin – Mystery Road Expanded Edition
  15. Portugal, The Man – Woodstock
  16. Chuck Berry – Chuck
  17. Cheap Trick – We’re All Alright 
  18. Waterboys – Out of this Blue
  19. Big Thief – Capacity 
  20. Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here?

And Special Portland Topper:  Jared Mees –  Life is Long Besides being a perfect album, it gave me the theme song for my podcast, Recovering Asshole.